Is it the same if everything’s different?

Good morning, good morning. It’s 5:30 and outside it’s windy and active — the birds are talking and the BART shines its whispery greeting beneath their song. it’s early, my eyes aren’t quite working yet. 

In an hour, or less, actually, I’ll get in the shower and get ready to go to work. Many things have changed in the last couple of months. I let go of the workshop space in Oakland. I took a job at Book Passage and then I let that go, too. And I’ve gone back to a job at UCSF — yesterday I managed to read a complete novel during my commute (and then while waiting in line to get the photo for my id badge taken and then while waiting for the new employee training to start and then while on the shuttle from Laurel Heights to Parnassus and then again after I got home and before bed — there may not be nearly so much reading time today).

I left my last job at UCSF in 2012 — I was ready to ramp the workshops up to a new level, and felt I needed to have all of my time and energy available for that. And then I immediately got a massive back spasm that impacted me for several months, maybe hinting at my ambivalence about the whole project. 

It’s strange to be back at something I left seven years ago. Much is the same — I’m working for the same department with many of the same people, which is delightful — and there’s a lot, too, of course, that’s changed. I feel grateful and sad, like both a success and a failure. It turned out — after seven years of very hard work — that the workshops couldn’t sustain me here in the Bay Area, or I just wasn’t able to figure out how to make that happen. I’ve scrutinized it from so many angles, and I’m not going to do that this morning — it sends me down a sad rabbit hole, and I don’t want to do that today.

Because there’s been plenty of success, too — or plenty I’m proud of and delighted about: I completed the writing ourselves whole book; I went back to school, completed an MFA (!) and wrote a speculative memoir (!!); I fell in love with, moved in with, and married my beloved (!!!); I became an aunt (I didn’t really have much to do with that one, but it’s been amazing to have the time to be with them so much); I went to two different writing retreats, generated an enormous amount of writing, while also working with a couple hundred writers. 

I’m back at this job now because: it’s interesting and engaging work that takes me out of my writer’s head; I need to make a regular and consistent wage; and I want to be able to focus on completing and finding homes for several of my writing projects.

I finished yesterday’s novel last night after I got into bed, then scanned the acknowledgements (like you do) briefly after I finished the last page. There, I saw that this author’s agent was one I’d sent my work to (who rejected me), and also that she’d been awarded a writing grant that I’d applied for (and not received). I stopped reading and tossed the book to the floor.

Comparison is always a terrible idea — I know that. And publishing isn’t a zero-sum game; just because somebody else got something you wanted doesn’t mean you won’t get that later, or something else, or something better. But still, it stung. I tried a little bit to work myself into a lather about it, to have a good self-pity-while-going-to-sleep cry (I’m not being sarcastic — those are super satisfying sometimes), but I fell asleep too fast.

We do what we have to do, we artists. We have day jobs for awhile and then we stop and we find other ways to fund our work and sometimes then we go back to the day job. But in the meantime, the real work is (hopefully) always continuing — reading, writing, editing, submitting, reading, writing, editing, submitting, reading, writing… 

When I was at the Lambda Lit Awards this year, I started to cry at some point, as I do, out of some combination of admiration and delight and grief and envy. I thought about what I would say when (let’s say when) I’m up there at the podium for my tiny little bit of time, accepting a Lammy for my own book. I thought about what I wanted to say to everyone who’s been working for such a long time, saying yes to their work while they say no to so much else: some big job that offers actual financial stability; a career that others can recognize as successful; relationships; family; a savings or a retirement account — what I want to say to everyone who keeps on writing well and hard even in the face of rejections, and even in spite of all the voices inside telling us that we are nothing and will never succeed at this thing we love so much. What I want to say to all the trauma survivors who are no longer young, who are not going to be the fresh-new-thing on the cover of any magazine, but who create work that transports readers somewhere fresh and necessary anyway — to those of us whose work is weird or different or discomfiting or difficult to categorize, who write anyway, who keep writing anyway.

What could I say? What would I want to convey, besides: Keep going. Yes, the award matters, but it doesn’t matter more than getting your work out in front of readers who need your words more than you will ever know. 

No disrespect to anyone who won an award this year — of course your words are beautiful and powerful and necessary! — but the decision is so subjective it’s almost arbitrary, and when I’m standing there, it will be a matter of luck. What matters more than the awards (and now I'm telling/reminding myself this, as one who has not won any awards) is the work, of course. I need your words. Others do, too, At Lambda I remember that we need all of our lesbian survivor words, our gay survivor words, our bi survivor words, our queer survivor words, our trans survivor words — we need all the writing that you’ve got in you. 

Soon the dog will be up and I’ll give her a little play time outside before I get in the shower. It might be 2012, with me writing that sentence — but it isn’t. Sometimes we talk about the spiral staircase of healing — how it can seem like we’re in the same place again, dealing with something we thought we’d dealt with a long time ago, but if we look, we’re actually at a different vantage point, with more healing under our belt — the scenery may look the same, but we have changed. 

It’s not 2012 anymore — and definitely not 2005, when I first started working at UCSF. The scenerey may look the same, but I am a whole different Jen walking through it. I’ll have my notebook and visit those familiar places and write a new story. I’ keep writing anyway. I hope you do, too.

(Oh, and — I just checked, and saw that, in fact, I never submitted anything to that agent who represents the author whose book I read yesterday. So much for my self-pity — I guess I better get to that query letter!)

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